History of the Hungarian language

History of the Hungarian language
The "Funeral Sermon and Prayer". This text, dated to 1192, is the oldest longer Hungarian-only document. Earlier, Hungarian sentences and words appeared in Latin context.

Hungarian is an Ugric language. It has been spoken in the region of modern-day Hungary since the Magyar invasion of Pannonia in the late 9th century.

The predecessor language of Hungarian separated from the Ob-Ugric languages, probably still during the Bronze Age. There is no attestation for a period of close to two millennia. Old Hungarian is attested fragmentarily in epigraphy in the Old Hungarian script beginning in the 10th century, and isolated Hungarian words are attested in manuscript tradition from the turn of the 11th century. The oldest surviving coherent text in Old Hungarian is the Funeral Sermon and Prayer, dated to 1192.

The Old Hungarian period is by convention taken to cover Medieval Hungary, from the invasion of Pannonia in AD 896, to the collapse of the Kingdom of Hungary following the Battle of Mohács of 1526. A Middle Hungarian phase is by convention taken to last from 1526 to 1772, i.e. from the first books printed in Hungarian to the Age of Enlightenment, which prompted language reforms that resulted in the modern literary Hungarian language.



Separation from Common Uralic

The history of the Hungarian language begins with the Uralic era, in the Neolithic age, when the linguistic ancestors of all Uralic languages were living together, in the area of the Ural Mountains.[1]

Category Words in Hungarian Reconstructed words in Proto-Uralic Notes
Fishing, water hal 'fish', tat '(a kind of) fish',[2] háló 'mesh', víz 'water', 'river',[3] ár 'flood', láp 'fen' *kala, *totki, *kalaw, *weti, *juka, *sarV, *loppi See note 2 & 3.
Hunting, animals ideg 'nerve', ín 'fibre', íj 'bow', nyíl 'arrow', fogoly 'partridge', nyúl 'hare', holló 'raven' *jänti 'string', *sëxni 'vein', *joŋsi, *ńëxli, *püŋi, *ńomala, *kulaka
Daily life fő(z) 'cook', fazék 'pan', mony 'egg of a bird',[4] fon 'spin', öv 'belt', vas 'iron' *pexi(-ða), *pata, *muna, *puna 'braid', *wüŋä, *waśki See note 4.
Family apa 'father', fele(ség) 'wife', meny 'daughter-in-law', 'son-in-law', napa *ëppi 'father-in-law', (?), *mińä, *wäŋiw, *ana-ëppi

There are many words that are traced back to Uralic origin in Hungarian, as they occur in other Uralic languages as well and linguists have not been able to classify them as loanwords. Those that are not present in the Samoyedic languages are commonly also described as being of Finno-Ugric origin, but the existence of a definite distinction between "Uralic" and "Finno-Ugric" is disputed. (See Uralic languages#Family tree.)

As the Uralic unity disintegrated between the 4th and the 2nd millennium BC, the speakers of Samoyedic languages moved eastwards, while others, such as the Finnic and Hungarian speakers, moved westward.

The speakers of Ugric languages were living together approximately until 1000 BC, when the ancestors of Hungarians separated from the Ob-Ugrians.


Around 1000 BC, the linguistic ancestors of the Hungarians had moved southwestwards from their previous territories, the region west of the Ural Mountains, the eastern frontier of Europe; hence the Hungarian language separated from its closest relatives, the Ob-Ugric languages, a small group including the Mansi language and the Khanty language. The latter two languages separated only later, and their speakers were influenced by an Asian, possibly Western-Siberian tribe, as the Mansies and Khanties had moved northeast.

The Hungarians gradually changed their way of living from settled hunters to nomadic cattle-raising. Their most important animals included sheep and cattle. There are no written resources on the era, thus only a little is known about it.

After a long journey, the Hungarians had settled the coastal region of the northeastern Black Sea, where they were significantly influenced by Turkic peoples. With the fall of Attila's empire, the Huns had receded to this area, and established their new state, which also ruled over the Hungarians. Maybe a memoir of this is a Hungarian myth: the saga of Hunor and Magor, who are said to be the common ancestors of the Huns and the Hungarians.

However, the Hunnish rule had not been long-lasting, as the Hungarians soon fell under Turk (Göktürks) rule. The Turk Empire flourished from the 6th century to the 8th century. This is very probably the time when the Hungarians were first exposed to the concept of writing, through the Göktürks' mediation. The latter used the Orkhon script or Turkic runic script, and reputedly the Old Hungarian script (rovásírás) is a parent writing system of it.

The Hungarians call themselves Magyars (pronounced like madyar). Their external name, Hungarian, derive from the Turkic word onugor, meaning "ten arrows", and referring to a tribal alliance. This name was spread by the Slavs later in Europe. The name Magyar once was the name of a Hungarian tribe, Megyer(i). It likely means "talking man" (the first syllable may show a link to the Mansi language, as in Mansi, mañši means 'man, Mansi').

The Hungarians also came into contact with the Khazars. After the collapse of the latter's empire, Magyars lived as an independent nation, moving westward. In 895–896, under the rulership of Prince Árpád, they crossed the Carpathian Mountains, and settled the area of present-day Hungary. They also began to establish their own state here, namely the Principality of Hungary.

Early loanwords

There are some really early loanwords in Hungarian, which enriched the language's vocabulary, estimated to 25,000 words at the time. Here are some examples:

Loans before the separation from the Ob-Ugric languages
Loans after the separation from the Ob-Ugric languages
Turkic hattyú 'swan', szó 'word', hód 'beaver' homok 'sand', harang 'bell', ér 'worth sth'
Permic agyar 'fang', daru 'crane', hagyma 'bulb'

In the era of the Turkic influences, Hungarians developed especially culturally: the borrowed vocabulary consist of terms referring to sophisticated dressing, and the words of a learned upper class society. The phrases of basic literacy are also of Turkic origin. A number of words related to agriculture and viticulture have the same background.


Hungarian Finnish Translation
hal kala fish
kő (compare 2nd root köv-!) kivi stone
lúd lintu hu: goose, fi:bird
kéz käsi hand

The phonetic system of Hungarian went through large changes in the Proto-Hungarian period. The most important change was the disappearance of the original Uralic word-ending vowels (which eroded in many descendant languages. For example Finnish however largely preserves these sounds; see the table on the right.) However, declined forms of the nouns and inflected verbs of Uralic origin still show traces of the lost sounds: (horse)—lovas (rider); (stone)—ves. This was the process of phonetic reduction.

Possibly there had been also present a velar ï sound as well, later replaced by a palatal i. Today, since Hungarian has vowel harmony, some words containing the palatal sound i pick up the back suffix when conjugated or declined—instead of the front suffix, which is usual for i's of other origin. Some examples: nyíl (arrow) → nyilat (accusative; instead of regular *nyilet); inni ([v inf], to drink) → ivás (drinking [n], instead of regular *ivés).

The transition from diphthongs to simple vowels had already begun in the Proto-Hungarian period.


Stop consonants between vowels developed to spirants, and those after a nasal consonant became voiced:

Original Uralic Replaced by Position
p f (voiceless labiodental fricative) initial
β (voiced bilabial fricative) medial
t z (voiced alveolar fricative) medial
k x (voiceless velar fricative) in initial position in words that contain only velar vowels
ɣ (voiced velar fricative) medial
mp b (voiced bilabial stop) everywhere
nt d (voiced alveolar stop) everywhere
ŋk ɡ (voiced velar stop) everywhere


The language developed its interesting features, the transitive and intransitive verb conjugations. (See Hungarian grammar (verbs).) Marked possessive relations appeared. The accusative marker -t was developed, as well as many verb tenses.

Old Hungarian (10th to 15th centuries)

Old Hungarian
Spoken in Medieval Hungary
Extinct developed into Early Modern Hungarian by the 16th century
Language family
Language codes
ISO 639-3 ohu

By the 10th century, the Hungarians had established a principality in present-day Hungary and its neighbourhood. In 1000, Vajk—the later Stephen I of Hungary—had got his crown from the Papal State, and the history of the Christian Kingdom of Hungary began.

The Latin language was made official in the country—especially in the 11th to 15th centuries, the language of literature and religion was Latin. However, Hungarian was used in certain cases; sometimes it was fitted into Latin documents, to avoid later disputes about proprietary rights.

Though, the first official document of Hungary is not in Latin, but in Greek—this is the "Charter of the nuns of Veszprémvölgy",[5] dated to 997. The text contains some Hungarian (and also some Slavic) place names: saɣarbrien (compound formed from saɣar 'shaft' + an obsolete Turkic loanword, brien 'coalition'—today Szárberény); saːmtaɣ 'plough'; meleɡdi (from meleg 'warm' + -di dimunitive suffix); and so on.

The next most important document is the "Establishing charter of the abbey of Tihany", dated to 1055. In the Latin text, 3 Hungarian sentences, 58 words, and 33 suffixes are present. The longest sentence is "fɛhɛːrvaːru reaː mɛnɛɣ hodu utu reaː" (original transcript: feheruuaru rea meneh hodu utu rea; modern Hungarian: "Fehérvárra menő hadi útra"—the postposition "rea", meaning "onto", became the suffix "-ra/-re"—English: 'up to the military road going to Fehérvár'). Today, the vellum is kept in the abbey of Pannonhalma.

Hungarian words in the founding declaration of the Benedictine Abbey of Tihany, 1055
The Old Hungarian poem "Laments of Mary"

Skipping intermediate Hungarian relics, the next important point is the "Funeral Sermon and Prayer", from 1192. This is the first completely Hungarian text. The document is located on the 154th page of the Codex Pray (Pray here is not English; it is a name). The sermon begins with the words "laːtjaːtuk fɛlɛim symtyxːɛl mik voɟmuk iʃaː por eʃ xomou voɟmuk"[6]—"Do you see, my friends, what we are: truly, we are only dust and ash."

Literature in Hungarian is counted since the previous writing. The first known Hungarian poem has the title 'Laments of Mary'—its theme is the story of Jesus' crucifixion, from the viewpoint of Mary. It was denoted around 1300, but possibly it is not the first version—its text is clear, easy to understand and logical, free of latinisms. The first verse:

volɛːk ʃirolm tudotlon
ʃirolmol ʃɛpɛdik
buol osuk, ɛpedɛk

I was lament-ignorant;
I am suffering from lament,
I am suffering, languishing from sorrow.

The next important relic—with a cheerless history—is the "Fragment of Königsberg", dated approximately to the 1350s. This is the remain of the first known, explicitly proven Hungarian book. The codex had arrived at Wrocław, Poland, by the end of the century; there, because of it was not understandable to the Polish bookbinder, it was chopped and used to bind a Latin book. The other important book from the time is the Codex Jókay; a 15th century copy of the original from 1372. The codex is about the life of Francis of Assisi.

A copy of the Hussite Bible, in the Codex of Munich, dated to 1466

In the early 15th century, some not comprehensive Latin-Hungarian dictionaries—or rather word listings—were composed. Some shorter texts are also known. Regardless of these, the most important work is the first translation of the Bible: this is the Hussite Bible, dated to 1430. The Bible was translated by Tamás Pécsi and Bálint Ujlaki; both were priests. They were affected by the concepts of Jan Hus during their university years (1399–1411) in Prague. The Inquisition pursued these concepts, and the translation was confiscated from the translators; anyway, it became such popular that there are several authentic copies of the original.

More and more Hungarian books were written; most of them is religious. Over and above the "Laments of Mary", the other important item of Old Hungarian poetry is the "Fight of Šabac".[7] Reputedly it was denoted in the year of the battle (1476); in this, Hungarian troops led by King Matthias of Hungary had a glorious victory over the Ottoman army—its issue is secular. Possibly it is a fragment of a longer poem. A quotation:

dɛ ɑz feʎːøːl mondot paːl keneʒi
aːroknɑk meːʎʃeːɡeːt iɡen nezi
ki ʃɑbatʃ erøːʃ voltaːt ɛlmeːlːeː
honːeːɡ minemøː aːlɟuː kel mɛlːeː

But, Pál Kinizsi said about the thing,
who was regarding the dike's depth;
who knew the powerfulness of Šabac:
what sort of cannons should be brought from where.

In the 1490s, Hungarian was spoken by about 3.2 million people; this number was fairly high at the time. The first examples of official and legal use are dated back to these years. Some personal letters and wills are known. Nevertheless, the Ottoman Empire put pressure on neighbouring nations, just like on Hungary—the latter was unstable at the time, due to internal lordship debates. This led to the Hungarian (led by Louis II of Hungary) loss of the Battle of Mohács (1526). In 1541, Ottomans finally captured the capital, Buda as well. The country was split up to three parts; the southern regions fell under Ottoman rule; the western parts officially remained "Kingdom of Hungary", with Habsburg kings; and the eastern area, mainly Transylvania and the Partium became independent.

Some Old Hungarian script inscriptions are also known, such as the "Alphabet of Nikolsburg" (1483) and a number of deciphered and undeciphered inscriptions. Historic linguists put the end of the Old Hungarian period to 1526, as it is a such important date in Hungarian history.

Linguistic changes


In this period, Hungarian developed several new words. One way this happened was through loanwords coming from languages whose speakers mediated the new concepts. On the other hand, internal word formation also took place, in which the words for new concepts were derived from earlier words.

Old Hungarian was rich—especially compared to Modern Hungarian—in derivative suffixes. Most of these suffixes are also derived from other suffixes, so they can be aligned in "suffix-bushes".

There were numerous diminutive suffixes, unknown in today's Hungarian: -d ("holmod", from "holom"—"tiny hill"); -t (it left its trace in some geographic names) -n, -ny, -m (as in kicsiny, from kicsi—very little), and so on.

Forming compounds was also a way to coin new terms.

But then again, there are several loanwords dating back to the period 896–1526. Loans were mainly acquired from Slavic languages (for example, kiraːʎ 'king'), German (e. g. hɛrtsɛɡ 'prince'), and Latin (e. g., tɛmplom 'church'). As emerges from the previous examples, these words are primarily associated with Christianity and politics. Other loans are the names of animals living outside Hungary, terms of technology, and so on.


Like English, Modern Hungarian has two verb tenses: past and nonpast. Futurity is expressed using the auxiliary verb foɡ. However, Old Hungarian had six verb tenses: Past Narrative (Latin: praeteritum), Past Finite, Past Complex, Present, Future Simple, and Future Complex.

Past Narrative was marked using the suffixes , in transitive and -e, -a in intransitive. The tense was used to describe an array of past events originally. The verb várni 'to wait' conjugated in this tense:

Past Narrative - várni
Number Person Type
Transitive Intransitive
Singular 1st (I) várám várék
2nd (You) várád várál
3rd (He/She) várá vára
Plural 1st (We) váránk váránk
2nd (You) várátok várátok
3rd (They) várák várának

Future Simple was expressed using the suffix -nd.[8] Future Complex (the present-day Future tense of the language) is conjugated in the following way:

Infinitive + auxiliary verb 'fog'
menni fog—he/she is going to go
See also: Hungarian grammar (verbs).

Middle Hungarian

The first printed Hungarian book was published in Kraków in 1533, by Benedek Komjáti. The work's title is Az Szent Pál levelei magyar nyelven (In original spelling: Az zenth Paal leueley magyar nyeluen), i.e. The letters of Saint Paul in the Hungarian language. In the 17th century, the language was already very similar to its present-day form, although two of the past tenses were still used. German, Italian and French loans also appeared in the language by these years. Further Turkish words were borrowed during the Ottoman occupation of much of Hungary between 1541 and 1699.

Modern Hungarian

In the late 18th century, the language was incapable of clearly expressing scientific concepts, and several writers found the vocabulary a bit scant for literary purposes. Thus, a group of writers, most notably Ferenc Kazinczy, began to compensate for these imperfections. Some words were shortened (győzedelem > győzelem, 'triumph' or 'victory'); a number of dialectal words spread nationally (e. g. cselleng 'dawdle'); extinct words were reintroduced (dísz 'décor'); a wide range of expressions were coined using the various derivative suffixes; and some other, less frequently used methods of expanding the language were utilized. This movement was called the 'language reform' (Hungarian: nyelvújítás), and produced more than ten thousand words, many of which are used actively today. The reforms led[citation needed] to the installment of Hungarian as the official language over Latin in the multiethnic country in 1844.

The 19th and 20th centuries saw further standardization of the language, and differences between the mutually already comprehensible dialects gradually lessened. In 1920, by signing the Treaty of Trianon, Hungary lost 71% of its territories, and along with these, 33% of the ethnic Hungarian population. Today, the language is official in Hungary, and regionally also in Romania, in Slovakia, and in Serbia. History of the Hungarian language

Old Hungarian text sample

Latiatuc feleym zumtuchel mic vogmuc. yſa pur eſ chomuv uogmuc. Menyi miloſtben terumteve eleve miv iſemucut adamut. eſ odutta vola neki paradiſumut hazoa. Eſ mend paradiſumben uolov gimilcictul munda neki elnie. Heon tilutoa wt ig fa gimilce tvl. Ge mundoa neki meret nu eneyc. yſa ki nopun emdul oz gimilſtwl. halalnec halalaal holz. Hadlaua choltat terumteve iſtentul. ge feledeve. Engede urdung intetvinec. eſ evec oz tiluvt gimilſtwl. es oz gimilſben halalut evec. Eſ oz gimilſnek vvl keſeruv uola vize. hug turchucat mige zocoztia vola. Num heon muga nec. ge mend w foianec halalut evec. Horogu vec iſten. eſ veteve wt ez munkaſ vilagbele. eſ levn halalnec eſ poculnec feze. eſ mend w nemenec. Kic ozvc. miv vogmuc.

Ye see, my brethren, with your eyes, what we are! Behold, we are dust and ashes. Through His divine grace the Lord God first made our ancestor, Adam, and gave him the Paradise of Eden for his home. And of all the fruits of Paradise, He bade him live, forbidding to him only the fruit of one tree, yet telling him, why he should not eat of it: "Lo, on the day thou eatest of this fruit, thou shalt die the death of deaths." Adam had heard of his death from his Creator-God, yet he forgot. He yielded to the Devil’s allurement, and ate of the forbidden fruit, and in that fruit he partook of death. And so bitter was the juice of that fruit, it (almost?) burst their throats. Not only for himself, but for all his race he ate death. In anger, God cast him into this world of toil, and he became the nest of death and damnation, for all his kind. Who shalt be those? We are them.

—Quoted from the Funeral Sermon and Prayer, 1192.


  1. ^ The speakers of the Uralic languages are not related genetically, only linguistically.
  2. ^ An obsolete word. The word tat in modern Hungarian means 'stern'.
  3. ^ no longer means river in Hungarian; instead, the term folyó is used, derived from the verb folyni 'flow'. However, certain geographic names in Hungary prove the existence of the word : Berettyó (from Berek-jó 'Grove-river'), Sajó (from Só-jó) etc. Also compare Finnish joki 'river'.
  4. ^ Mony is also unknown in Modern Hungarian.
  5. ^ "Veszprémvölgy" is a place name, around present-day Veszprém.
  6. ^ Transcript of original: "Latiatuc feleym zumtuchel mic vogmuc. yſa pur eſ chomuv uogmuc"
  7. ^ Szabács viadala in Hungarian.
  8. ^ Traces of Future Simple are still found in the language. The future suffix, -nd is an element of the suffix -andó/-endő, used to derive a kind of participles. Example: elintézendő 'something that has to be administered in future'.

Reference works

  • Molnár József—Simon Györgyi: Magyar nyelvemlékek. 3rd edition, Tankönyvkiadó, Budapest, 1980.
  • Dr. Inczefi Géza: A magyar nyelv fejlődéstörténete. Typescript. Tankönyvkiadó, Budapest, 1969.
  • Gáspár Heltai: Száz fabvla. Heltai Press, Kolozsvár, 1566.
  • A magyar középkor története. Pannonica, 2006.
  • Péter Ruffy: Bujdosó nyelvemlékeink. Móra Publishing, 1977.

See also

External links

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